Tim, the motel owners’ son, checked in the movie star but thought he was just a dead ringer, not the real thing. The movie star arrived mid-week with no reservation, and Tim was glad he didn’t give the guy any grief. “He looked kind of flat in person,” he explained to a reporter later. “He didn’t pop off the page, you know, like they do in magazines.” Not that he read those magazines. Also there’d been the dinky rental car. A marble. Who would drive that if you had any money at all?
The movie star carried two duffel bags into his room, Number 6. There were ten rooms at the Sea Island Cutter, the maximum anyone could imagine needing back in 1955 when it had been built. The place was shaped in a curved “V” like the hull of a ship with five rooms on each side and the office in the back, facing the road. There was a wedge-shaped pool in the triangular common area between the rooms, which had been considered very modern and stylish at first, before the Sea Island Cutter went from being The Place To Stay to “decent,” then “a bit worn,” then “sorry looking” and then, after a major renovation, “retro.” It sat on one of the most valuable lots on the barrier islands, right next to Charlie’s Historic Pier Bar and Grill, a cinderblock affair of slightly older vintage that was, in fact, next to the historic pier, where visitors were charged a dollar apiece if they wanted to walk on the pier for the view.
All the rooms at the Sea Island Cutter had small patios which provided a glimmering strip of ocean view over the dunes, where you could cross to the beach via a wooden bridge. The newer hotels and condos were jacked up on concrete flood stilts so everyone got a full-on view from their narrow balconies. And of course there were the massive houses going up on every postage-sized piece of land remaining. But the people who stayed at the Sea Island Cutter had either been coming there for years or had been brought as children and now came back for nostalgia, or had tripped across it after it became retro, and none of them would think of staying anywhere else. This was a real place, after all; family-owned, unique—a plus in these days of superhighways and franchises and planned communities—what Tim’s father always said. In the high season, you had to renew your registration for the following year when you checked in. There were no openings from March to September. This week they’d had only the one empty room, until the movie star’s last-minute registration. Not bad for mid-October, Tim thought.
When the movie star went to Room 6, other guests were either on the beach or out golfing or shopping. It was likely that the two older couples in Rooms 9 and 10 were napping, as they had every afternoon since they’d arrived, and there were also the first-timers with the toddlers in Number 8. Tim walked briskly past the door of Room 6 so as not to appear to be snooping. He noticed a gap in the curtains. He heard snoring, even over the hum of the room AC unit. He went back to the office and grabbed an armload of extra towels, then acted as if he was going to knock on the door, just in case he was being watched. He leaned to the side just enough to peek in the curtain gap and he saw the movie star lying face-down on top of the shell-patterned bedspread, mouth open and eyes closed, his bags on the floor next to his dangling arm. And oddly enough, it was this view of the movie star, sacked out in the half-gloom, which convinced Tim he was actually the real thing. He took a deep breath, and the scent of bleached and boiled terry cloth filled his nostrils. That was the guy, definitely. This was no look alike.
Tim told the old man when he got in from the golf course—Tim Senior played daily like it was his job, like God commanded it—and the old man sighed and shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “Traffic’s going to be a pain in the ass.”
Traffic. The deepest of Tim Senior’s concerns. The two-lane beach roads jammed with summer tourists gave him fits even though they conveyed his wealth. He talked about traffic the way other people talked about sickness or war—the ebb and flow, the unexpected moments of terror or quiet. In summer he went on about how he couldn’t wait for schools to start back so people would go home and he could get to a tee time.
“We can keep it quiet,” Tim said.
“Won’t matter,” Tim Senior said, wiping his face. “Some kid snaps him on his cell and the whole goddamned world’s gonna know anyway.” The loose red skin under Tim Senior’s jaw jiggled and Tim thought, Don’t let me get that wattle.
“Probably’s already happened,” Tim Senior continued. “Goddamn traffic.”
It was dusk by the time the movie star emerged, hair slicked back, smelling of soap and cigarettes. He asked Tim where he could find a grocery store and a good place for oysters. This time the movie star seemed to be watching him carefully, possibly, Tim thought, to discern whether Tim recognized him. Tim decided to pretend he didn’t, and he wondered how good his acting was. I am pretending to be a man who is oblivious, he thought. He found his character, the character of Tim, the owner’s son, unmarried, affable if a bit shy, not a smiler but not a grump. The kind of guy who knew words like oblivious and affable but didn’t let on. “The best place for seafood is the Blue Heron, right before you go over the bridge, on the sound side. You’ll see it. And the grocery’s just over the bridge on the right.”
“They do take out?”
“Sure. You want the number?”
The movie star nodded. He wore a T-shirt with some faded words on it that Tim couldn’t read, and those man-sandals that Tim and his father had always snickered at. It was one of the few things Tim and his father could agree on. Man sandals. Yes, they lived at the beach but they didn’t wear sandals and none of the other locals did—meaning true locals, not the transplants—for the simple reason that sandals were for women and little kids and it didn’t matter if you made the straps and heels thicker, they were still sandals. They were like skirts. You could cut them from Astroturf and call them something else but they were still skirts. Same thing with purses. Satchels, his ass.
Tim wrote the restaurant number down on a Sea Island Cutter notepad, ripped off the sheet and handed it over.
“Thanks.” The movie star took it and smiled, and then it happened: He expanded in the room, a gleam whirring off of him. Tim tried to get a handle on what he was seeing: a smallish guy, lean but muscular, dark straight hair, a little age in the eyes, though Tim thought of him as young, having seen him playing earnest kid roles years ago. Had it been that long? You couldn’t just call him good-looking, or even handsome, which was a word Tim was pretty sure he’d never said out loud unless talking about horses. The guy had an appealing face, no question. But what was it—energy? Sparks?—spun from his skin as he turned.
Tim had never seen anything like it, not in person. “You’re welcome,” he heard himself saying, and the man pushed open the glass door and the little bell rang and Tim put the phone book away and pretended to stack the notepads. He felt watched, self-conscious—the way his father still made him feel, and here Tim was forty-nine.
He waited until he saw the marble’s headlights swing out of the parking lot and then pulled from under the counter the box of magazines from the previous week just to give himself something to concentrate on. These were the sunscreen-smeared, torn beach reads that the guests left behind. He gathered them along with anything else that was left before Marcy came to clean the rooms on Saturday mornings. He did this not because he didn’t trust Marcy to do her job. Hell, he’d dated her when she’d first started cleaning for them something like twenty years ago. She’d broken up with him but had kept the job.
That was back before he’d resigned himself to taking on the family business. He’d been coming and going, pissing the old man off and making his mother cry, all the while trying to convince himself that he could come up with any better idea of what to do with himself. He’d dropped out of college, partied around. Then Marcy showed up at the Cutter, and she was twenty-five and hot as hell. Not sweet pretty, not a bombshell. Long-legged and dark-eyed and quiet. But crazy. You could feel the hum off of her. You came to realize that she was quiet not because she was shy and certainly not because she couldn’t think of anything to say. No, exactly the opposite. Her mind was going a mile a minute, and she was just trying not to alarm anyone.
He found out later that his father had hired her to lure him home. Or keep him home the next time he wandered back, out of money and asking if he could help around the place again, and sure, maybe this time he’d stay. He walked right into it. He worked up his courage to ask her out within the week. He made out like he’d been off doing important work but now his father was getting tired and needed him. What a gem he was. The heir apparent. What an asshole.
But they had been in love for a while. He was pretty sure of that. She had loved him, or thought that she might. They’d made love in every single one of the Sea Island Cutter’s deluxe kitchenette suites. When she’d told him it was over, she explained it was because he thought too much of himself, and because he believed life should be easy and that things should be handed to him. She said, “It’s like you’re waiting for someone to call you and tell you you’re a millionaire and by the way you’ve also got a title.”
He’d tried to joke his way back into her graces again. I am a millionaire! I could buy a title! He’d tried begging. Then he asked his father to fire her. The old man wouldn’t; Marcy had gotten in good with him. Tim left for a while to get over her. Or he did what he thought was a pretty good impression of it; he just avoided her at all costs if he was in town. Quit her like he later had to quit drinking. Then he came back, and that time it was for good. He got engaged because he was thirty-five by then and it was time, and the woman’s face is a blur to him now. It was the same even back then. They might have made each other up. Anyway, that fell through and by then he was settled at the Cutter. Even his father could tell Tim wasn’t going anywhere again. He’d done his last twist on the hook. He was living in a beached ship.
He’d been back about a year, running the place like a good prodigal son, when Marcy stopped in the office one day during the week. This was a surprise. He saw her on weekends when she came to clean, but he was busy checking people out and in, and she was busy cleaning, so it was easy to keep a distance. He left her weekly paycheck on the laundry room shelf. But there she was, standing inside the doorway, apparently for no other reason than to talk to him. She said she hoped they could be friends. He said, “We aren’t friends. But I won’t fire you.”
She turned and walked out, and after that, if he happened to see her, he smiled and said hello and treated her like any paying customer. He said, “What can I do for you?” He said, “Everything OK?” She got the message. It was all he could do to keep himself on his feet around her. She’d made him feel small. Maybe he had been small, spinning fibs and posturing. He’d wanted to impress her, and she’d seen into him and through him and had not been impressed. He couldn’t blame her, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to give her a chance to get at him again.
And she’d stayed all these years. Cleaning motel rooms—for the Cutter on weekends and hotels during the week. Waited tables here and there, too, during the season. She’d been married for ten years and then left that guy, too. No kids. Tim had wanted to take the guy out for a beer when he’d heard the news.
She left the rooms sparkling. If she found any forgotten items, she brought them to him; she had a crate she called the Lost Box. He’d dropped a twenty under a bed once to test her. Planted a ring behind a toilet—closest he ever came to giving her one. That tested how good a job she was doing cleaning, too. She brought everything to him. There was no trapping her any better than she’d trapped herself, in much the same way Tim had, except without the inheritance.
So he visited the rooms after the guests left and before Marcy arrived on Saturdays, turnover days, not because he had the slightest worry about her stealing, but because he wanted first crack at them. He wanted to see each just as it was left, while the most recent tenants’ presence still lingered. The range was impressive. People with kids left the place a wreck—bed linens everywhere, kitchen counter food-crusted, the sink caked with toothpaste—and he’d long wondered why motels would allow kids and not dogs. Dogs for the most part were no louder, just as toilet-trained, and they couldn’t swing from the drapes, as he’d actually come upon a kid doing not very long ago while the drunk mother dozed. Older folks and gay couples left the place neat as a pin, the linens stripped and spreads pulled up, counters shining. Single folks for the most part didn’t stay at the Sea Island Cutter, maybe because the rooms all had two queen beds which perhaps were too much a reminder of what they did not have—yet or any longer. This week though there were two singles, a woman and a man, each with one child of the same sex as themselves, and the children looked to be about the same age. It was like a mini-Brady Bunch waiting to happen, and Tim hoped they’d get together, or at least hook up. Tim had found that in the absence of an abiding love, a night or few spent skin to skin still had some value.
It was established later that on his errand out, the movie star had ordered raw oysters, fries and coleslaw from the Blue Heron, where he was not recognized because the dim lighting (lower the lights, raise the prices), and at the grocery store he purchased sandwich bread (white), bologna, sliced cheese, a half-dozen eggs, coffee, creamer, potato chips, apples, a liter bottle of store brand root beer, and a case of canned beer—nothing fancy, just a cheap domestic, it was noted. In the grocery store he wore a baseball hat and kept his head down. The nineteen-year-old clerk later said she was scared to ask him if he really was who she thought he was because he didn’t seem interested in talking. She wondered if he might scream at her like the young cop character he’d played in his most recent movie who was straight and narrow until a gang targeted him for breaking up their drug ring in Boston—and he had that accent you could barely understand. Anyway, it wasn’t him, she thought; he was too scrawny.
Of course, later, when she told the story many times over, to anyone who would listen as they went through the checkout line, a steady stream of sunburned tourists, she ended with her regret that she hadn’t trusted her instincts and asked him if he was who she thought he was. Sometimes when she told the story she said actually did know, but she didn’t want to act like yet another star-struck fan trying to get a piece of him. Sometimes she said he seemed a bit rude and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Sometimes—only very occasionally—she said that she had in fact told him, whispered to him how wonderful she thought he was, and he had leaned toward her and told her she was beautiful, and would she like to come out with him that night, and she said no because she had a boyfriend, and she was nothing if not loyal.
She marked the movie star’s visit to the Seaside Grocery on her mind’s calendar. The visit occurred the day before her daughter’s second birthday; her mother was keeping the child that night because her boyfriend—not the father of the baby—was out with his friends, rather than shopping for a birthday present like he’d promised. Nevertheless, because of her daughter’s birthday, she could easily keep track of how many years had passed since meeting the movie star. And so later, she was able to determine that on the day the movie star had arrived on the island and passed through her checkout line, he’d had exactly ten years to live.
The movie star carried in his groceries past Clark, the single guy, and Clark’s nine-year-old son Brice, who were working in one last swim before bed, and past the Postons and Elterlings, who were sipping wine on the Poston’s patio at Number 9, which of all the rooms had the best ocean view because of a notch in the dunes. Their backs were to the movie star, though Walt Elterling noted his brisk passing beside the pool to Number 6. Walt did not miss much; he secretly attributed this quality to his survival in Vietnam, though publicly he always said many better, smarter men than he had been blown away for no reason at all. You couldn’t avoid dying if it was your time; that was a fact, no matter how smart or careful you were.
The movie star left his room one more time that first night to walk on the beach. This time he wore shorts and the same tee shirt and his man sandals. He carried a bottle of water which Tim had seen him pull from a case of waters in his trunk. He nodded at Clark and Brice and then the Elterlings and Postons and climbed the steps of the wooden bridge which was lit at night with short yellow lamps, and Corinne Poston saw him pause and dip his head as he began descending the steps on the other side, his face briefly lit, and she thought he might be her son’s age; in fact, he looked familiar—could he possibly be one of Alex’s friends? What were the chances of that? And what would he be doing here, alone? Such a small world. The young man’s legs and hips and chest and shoulders and finally his head disappeared from her view, and it looked to her as if he was slipping into a fold between the dunes and the star-shot sky.
An hour later, Tim had closed up and retired to his apartment above the office, watching TV with the lights off and the windows cracked to let in the evening breeze and the small talk amongst the guests. This way he could monitor what was going on down at the pool without being seen. He knew some people might view this as spying, but he saw it as keeping an eye on things. After all, it was his responsibility to take care of his family’s assets. All this will someday be yours. His father had actually said that to him once, in complete seriousness, as if they were overlooking the kingdom. In any case, watching the guests from above did allow him to get to know them a bit—whether they kept to themselves or made small talk, whether they drank too much, whether they felt lucky to be there or felt like they owned the place.
Tim was drifting off when he saw the movie star come back from the beach, man sandals dangling from one hand. He nodded at the Postons and Elterlings, and one of the men called out a hello, howareya, a little slur to it, and the movie star waved and kept walking. He also nodded to the Rails—the couple with the twin toddlers, who’d finally gotten them down, Tim guessed, and were now on their patios, sipping from plastic bottles of soda—did they not drink? God, he would go back to it if he had kids, no question. Or maybe they were sneaking rum into those co-colas, as his father called them. When the old man wasn’t talking about traffic or golf, he often orbited back to a story about his friend Jim Seams, who’d offered him the chance to invest in a company making a new sweet carbonated caramel drink. He’d said no, and this was one of his life’s regrets, he always said, because he could’ve been fabulously wealthy. But of course he was already rich as hell. And did he regret this investment misjudgment more than cheating on his wife with a steady stream of vacationers? Tim had not worked up the nerve to ask the old man that one.
The movie star paused to unlock his room, then seemed to remember that he hadn’t locked it, and turned the knob. Under the porch light, Tim saw that water dripped from his clothes. He watched until the man shut the door behind him and the light came on in his room. Tim saw nothing more worth noting before he fell asleep on his couch. He dreamed of his mother, dead fifteen years—since not long after Tim came back for good. She put her hand on his arm and asked him, “What is he doing here?” In the dream Tim thought she meant Tim Senior, and he couldn’t answer her, never could speak in his dreams. She seemed so worried, on the verge of tears, and he tried to hug her, but then she disappeared and the dream went black.
Leigh Ann, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Pete and Elaine Talling, knew who the movie star was immediately. A gesture gave him away, the way he paused before bringing a cigarette to his lips, held it close to his mouth as he exhaled, like that poor soldier he’d played who’d fallen in love with his brother’s wife and then had finally killed himself. Leigh Ann and her parents had just come back from an early morning stroll on the beach. The movie star sipped coffee from one of the small white mugs that came from the kitchenettes. He was reading the local paper. Beside his lounge chair was an ashtray and a paperback with a picture of a man’s hand holding a bloody dagger. The blood and the lettering were metallic red. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt because it was still cool. No one else was out yet—the sun hadn’t even topped the dunes yet. The sky was orange-pink, long clouds like marble veins carrying the color.
“Mom, it’s! It’s!” Leigh Ann whispered, but her voice carried more than she’d intended in the morning quiet.
Elaine grabbed her daughter’s hand, a protective reflex. Then she saw where Leigh Ann was looking and understood. She knew who it was, too, right away—he’d played that drifter who’d stayed briefly with a woman whose emotionally distant husband had recently died—they’d called it a May-September romance since the woman was older than the drifter but not that old—and when he left, she’d cried, but he had healed her, and she was ready to face life alone. Elaine felt a heat in her chest thinking of it.
“What?” Pete asked, and Leigh Ann and Elaine both looked back at him, scowling. Elaine actually brought her finger to her lips.
They were near the edge of the patio, and across the flat blue surface of the pool, the movie star appeared not to have heard them.
“I guess we should leave him alone,” Elaine whispered. “He probably wants quiet time.”
Pete snorted. “Nonsense. He can have quiet time in his room. Patio’s a common area.” As a matter of fact, Pete wanted quiet time in his room. He was annoyed with himself for not thinking through the sleeping arrangements better—getting a two-room suite somewhere else, for example. But Elaine had wanted to come here since she’d been before as a child, and he hadn’t questioned it, and because of this they’d had no chance to have sex at night, which was when Pete preferred to have it, because then he could just go to sleep. Elaine didn’t seem to mind. They’d managed it one afternoon while Leigh Ann was down at the beach, and they’d had to lock the door, and they were both distracted worrying that Leigh Ann might come back needing something. Not like they had much sex these days, but Pete had hoped things might pick up at the beach. “Two weeks of this,” he muttered, and Elaine shushed him.
“Hello!” Pete bellowed, and the movie star looked up and smiled politely. “Just get in?”
The movie star dropped the newspaper against his chest and ticked his ball cap up his forehead. “Yep, last night,” he said. “Great place.”
“We’re on our second week,” Pete offered, and Elaine touched his arm.
“I’m sorry, we hate to disturb you,” Elaine said, and then Leigh Ann gathered her courage and said, “Are you Bram Carr?”
“Yes,” Bram Carr said, “And I have to ask you a favor.”
The next day, the Elterlings and the Postons took Bram Carr to dinner at a place that could only be reached by boat. The Shack, it was called. Walt, whose Navy career made him the sea-faring expert among the couples, had chartered the best boat in the area to get them there.
Corinne Elterling and Stella Poston, friends since college, primped in the bathroom of Stella and Frank’s room while waiting for the boat to arrive at the pier, laughing at themselves. It had been a long time since they’d shared hair curlers and make up, getting ready for a date. But that’s what this was. It was a date, and everyone was on it—the wives with their husbands, the wives with the movie star, and, to be honest, the men with the movie star as well. Corinne had noticed that Walt, who since his Navy days had kept to a schedule with grooming, shaved more carefully than usual, and had even used a cologne Corinne had given him two years earlier; she’d heard him slapping it on his face before he’d gone to get the boat. Stella reported that Frank had asked her if his shirt matched his shorts—which of course it did; what doesn’t match khaki?
Frank was at that moment standing on the wooden bridge over the dunes, waiting with Bram for the boat to arrive. He’d been the one to set this up. Good old Frank—never met a stranger. He hadn’t known who Bram Carr was; he’d just struck up a conversation with him while getting ice at the motel office. The actor had asked Frank if he knew of this restaurant on one of the outlying sea islands that that you could only get to by boat, which was apparently famous for its seafood—pearly scallops fat as hamburger patties, etcetera—and Frank had said he knew the place well, and that he and his wife and friends would be happy to take him there. It was a two-hour ride up the coast.
The women could see through the window that Frank had taken a cigarette from Bram—he hadn’t smoked in years—and they puffed companionably, gilded in late morning sun. To Corinne, Bram could be another son, brother to her only child; she felt that much tenderness for him. And then of course, she could not help herself but think of how Frank could have been her husband instead of Walt. He could have been.
The two women watched Frank and Bram on the bridge and, beyond them, the slow arrival of what looked to be their chartered boat, a white wedge in the still-orange sun. Stella said, “Remember how we used to sneak Frank’s cigarettes?” And Corinne nodded and pulled from her pocketbook her lipstick, Evening Shade, the only color she wore anymore, for the very reason that it helped her remember—stealing cigarettes, being young, not having her life decided. She dabbed it on and thought of how, during the fall of her senior year at Wesleyan, nearly forty years before this beach trip, she had taken several of Frank’s cigarettes with her, wrapped in tissue, when she went home to help her father settle things after her mother’s death from lung cancer. The illness had been so aggressive, and her eventual succumbing to it so terribly clear to all of them, including Corinne’s mother (who did not smoke), that she had handled funeral arrangements and updates to her will well in advance. She was practical and clear-headed to the end. After she was gone, Corinne, had stayed with her father through the holidays. She’d taken so many extra courses in her first three years that she was still on track to graduate in the spring. She’d thought she might smoke the cigarettes if she needed to calm her nerves. But after her mother’s death, she never smoked another.
Stella, who was her roommate and best friend, had written weekly letters that fall. Also Corinne kept in more sporadic touch with Walt, whom she’d dated at first only because Walt’s friend Frank was dating Stella. Frank and Stella’s relationship seemed serious enough that both Walt and Corinne had wondered if they would soon be asked to be best man and maid of honor. What a way to meet at the altar, Walt had joked, and Corinne knew Walt was trying to find out just how open Corinne was to that happening between the two of them.
But Corinne tried never to give Walt a sense in either direction, since she herself had not come to any conclusions. He was smart, sincere, and interested in her—all the things her mother had taught her to look for in a man—but she hadn’t felt that spark. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Walt was trying to acquire her, though she couldn’t point to any particularly proprietary words or actions, just an overall unease. And so she never asked Stella about her plans or desires concerning Frank. This was because although Corinne genuinely liked Walt, she was drawn to Frank. Both men—boys at the time—were handsome and sweet-natured, but Corinne “had eyes” for Frank, as her mother would have said had she still been alive for Corinne to confess to. And of course there would be no confessing to Stella, because Stella was Corinne’s best friend. So when Stella wrote that she and Frank had broken up while Corinne was home cleaning out her mother’s closet so that her father could bear to go into the master bedroom again, Corinne sat down at her mother’s dressing table and wrote a letter on her mother’s vanilla stationery back to Stella in which she encouraged Stella to make up with Frank. “I think he’s a wonderful guy, and you are the best of the best. If you two can make up maybe you can have a life together.”
She’d written this letter caught up in a dutiful spirit—the helpful daughter, the supportive friend. This was all fine until she received a letter from Frank days afterward. It was the only letter she received from him during her four months away from school—in fact, the only letter she ever received from him in her life. He too was writing with the news of his and Stella’s break up. He also wanted to tell her that they were all sad about her mother, and hoped she was doing okay, and looked forward to having her back. And right at the end, he wrote, “Even though Stella’s thrown me off, I hope you and I can still be friends. I’d hate to think that you wouldn’t talk to me anymore.” There were a couple more sentences wishing her family the best, and hoping they would get through the holidays all right, etcetera, and then Sincerely, Frank.
Corinne had kept this letter from forty years ago. It was one of her life’s treasures, as important as her son’s childhood pictures and the few silk scarves and simple pieces of jewelry she’d kept of her mother’s when her father died a few years later and the house was emptied and sold. She could go years without looking at the letter, but always she knew it was there, a part of her life that, although unrealized, was no less real to her than the life she was actually living.
What she had loved—still loved—about Frank was that he was anything but sincere. He was true—she didn’t doubt that. But it was clear to her even back when they were in college that he hadn’t been cast in stone like so many boys already had. You could see it in their faces, in their eyes. They’d accepted the order of things as presented to them by their families, churches and schools. They were the future leaders, the keepers of insight and intelligence, the shelterers of women and children, the stronger, better sex. But not Frank. How had she known? He’d winked at her during the prayers at some campus function at the beginning of the fall semester right before she had gone home, and her heart had yo-yoed in her chest. He had seen her standing there open-eyed. He knew about her. But he was Stella’s until she let him go, and when Stella’s next letter came saying she’d decided Corrine was right and she had gotten back together with Frank, Corinne put him in a box. Actually, she pressed him flat and slipped his letter in her journal—all she had of him—and she stayed with her father through the holidays (he’d refused a tree but they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas dinner) and then she bought a ticket to come back to school the day before classes started.
Stella had written that she and Frank and Walt were planning to meet her at the train. They would go out to dinner to celebrate being together again, and to get Corinne started on the right track for their final semester, after all she’d been through. But Corinne didn’t know what had transpired between Stella and Frank over the past several weeks—if their reconciliation had stuck—Stella’s letters had shrunk to three-line howzit’s during the holiday break.
When Corinne’s train arrived, only Frank and Walt were waiting (Stella had a cold, Walt explained later). Corinne had already smoothed on a layer of Evening Shade and powdered her nose. When she stepped off the train, it seemed that there was a question in the men’s uptilted faces. She believed in this moment that she could choose either one, and her choice would stick. As she walked toward them, seeing that expectation in their eyes, she was sure that whomever she kissed hello first would be the one she married. She knew this, as if someone had told her.
Frank stood just behind Walt—she would have to pass Walt to go to Frank, which was exactly what she intended to do. She made herself glance a smile at Walt and then kept her eyes on Frank as she got closer, and he had that same expression as when he’d winked at her during prayer. I know you. She wanted to throw her arms around him. The urge was so powerful she thought she might sob—not just from desire but from everything—her father’s stare, the empty closet still smelling of her mother’s perfume—and she fumbled and dropped her purse. Walt bent to get it, which would have offered her the chance to step around, to get to Frank, but instead she looked at him, waiting for him to embrace her, and Walt stood then and turned toward her, and leaned to kiss her on the cheek, and they hugged, and six months later they were married.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” Stella said, pointing to the white boat now dropping anchor by the pier. “It’s huge!”
It was huge, towering over the water. Walt obviously had decided to impress with his selection. Corinne put on her wide-brimmed hat and gathered her tote bag with sunscreen, snacks, towels, and her swimsuit, which she had no intention of putting on. She made sure she had Walt’s trunks—he would not have been pleased if she’d forgotten them, even if he didn’t end up swimming. He took care of all matters concerning house, lawn and car maintenance, but he expected her to run the household, including travel logistics. This understanding had been worked out between them through not a little friction in the early years of their marriage.
She followed Stella out onto the patio, waited while she locked the door. Frank and Bram waved to them from the bridge. The sunlight was still low-angled but now piercingly bright. Corinne put on her sunglasses; she could only imagine that Walt had gotten his before leaving, and she decided not to go back to their room to check—this in itself a small act of rebellion.
As Corinne and Stella climbed the boardwalk steps, Corinne watched Walt step from the boat onto the pier. She felt an anticipatory swell of seasickness. She had taken Dramamine and hoped it would kick in soon. She kept her eyes on Walt as she and Stella joined Frank and Bram on the bridge. Stella leaned next to Frank on the railing, and Frank put his arm around her in greeting since Bram was talking at that moment about his last movie, which was in production.
“It’s called Line in the Sand, and it’s about these creatures that come out of this huge fault in the desert, and I’m the guy who goes after them—anyway,” Bram said, “It’s the last one I had to do under this contract, and now I’m free.” He smiled, a bit apologetically even, and Corinne was glad for her age. If she’d been younger, she would have been terrified to be around a man this beautiful. There was a reason for the phrase “devastatingly handsome,” and men like Bram Carr embodied it. When she’d realized that she was past the point where men younger than fifty didn’t even look at her, she’d gone through a period of disappointment, a kind of mourning, really, and then had arrived at the realization that she, like an actor on her last contract film, was free. Or at least as free as she would be in her life before injury or illness (every winter cough made her wonder if cancer was setting in) hobbled her. She would no longer concern herself with pleasing men, and she tried not to regret all the effort she’d put into it in the past.
“Well, I for one can’t wait to see it,” Stella said about the desert creature film, and Bram shook his head as if to say there was no need for flattery, and Corinne wanted to chime in and say that actually, Stella was quite serious. Stella loved action pictures, romantic comedies, anything with a well-worn plot line. She had always made fun of Corinne’s movie choices, joking that subtitles were required whether or not the dialog was in English. It was a gentle teasing, a thread in their long friendship. For the past four decades, they’d seen each other only a few times a year, usually during a visit to one another’s houses—Frank and Stella on a lake in Michigan, Walt and Corinne near DC—and then made one trip a year together, usually to the coast somewhere. They had all changed—honed themselves—over the years. Walt, for example, had decided after President Clinton’s indiscretion that he could never again vote for a Democrat, no matter how well-qualified—though as a Navy man he’d deeply resented Senator Kerry’s swiftboating; Frank had quit drinking after losing a job (Stella hadn’t offered details and so Corinne hadn’t pressed), and now Frank had a drink only rarely; Stella had gone back to her Catholic faith with Frank’s blessings though not his participation, and Corinne believed that the timing of this was due at least in part to Stella’s acceptance in her mid-forties, after multiple miscarriages, that biological motherhood would not happen for her. And Corinne—how had she changed? She wished someone would tell her, and then again she didn’t want to know.
Frank said they should head over to the pier. They started walking, and Corinne had a sense, just for moment, that Bram Carr was not quite there. She felt her own impermanence like another wave of dizziness, and she squeezed her hands together, willing the thought away.
They went through Charlie’s and headed to the end of the pier toward Walt and the boat. The men helped the women aboard. Bram helped Walt bring up anchor. Walt joked that maybe Bram had learned a thing or two in that film where he’d played a boy enlisted at the last minute in an around-the-world sailing race with his father, and then the father gets injured and the son has to fight pirate attacks and a mighty storm to complete the race and—maybe because the film was done in Britain rather than in America—the son didn’t win, but he did survive.
“You saw that?” Bram asked, genuinely surprised. “That’s an old one.”
“I did, I did,” Walt said. “Made me actually miss the Navy.”
The two men laughed, and Corinne felt the rocking of the deck under her feet and tried to tell herself she would be OK; she would not get sick. She wondered when Walt had watched this movie—maybe with Alex? She had no memory of it.
The boat had three levels, with the cockpit on top, which Walt was now climbing a ladder to reach. Stella climbed down another ladder to explore below deck. Corinne didn’t trust her equilibrium enough yet to try going below. The boat didn’t seem nearly as big now that they were on it. She’d heard Walt mention fifty feet, which had sounded massive to her, but the main deck now looked no bigger than a kitchen nook to her. She turned to Frank just as Walt yelled something from the cockpit. Frank tilted his head back and cupped his ear to indicate he hadn’t understood, and Corinne saw again the young man who had waited for her at the train station with Walt when she’d come back to school. She liked to think of them getting up that morning, getting dressed, driving in Walt’s car to the station. What had they said about her, if anything? What had they thought but kept to themselves before she had chosen which one she would marry? (Certainly they believed they’d decided, but men didn’t really decide these things; she understood that now.) And why was she still wondering, all these years later?
Walt repeated whatever he’d said to Frank, and Frank nodded and turned to her and smiled that knowing yet unconcerned smile, as if they were the only ones in on a secret. Walt turned the boat toward open water. She swayed on her feet as the boat surged forward, and Frank cupped her arm under the elbow. She smiled to him in gratitude—speaking would have done no good over the roar of the engine and the wind filling their ears. And what would she have said—please keep holding me? She grasped Frank’s arm and watched the hatch leading down below, waiting until the last moment, when she saw Stella emerge, to let go.
That same morning, Leigh Ann’s father noticed, she’d felt the need to shower, apply makeup and blow dry her hair before leaving the room. They had all slept late—Pete for his part because the previous evening, he and Elaine had sent Leigh Ann to the small grocery just past the pier to pick up some ice cream. The errand gave Pete and Elaine just enough time to make love and get dressed again before their daughter returned. “High school all over again,” Pete had said, still breathing a bit heavily, zipping up, and Elaine shook her head, smiling, and nothing more was said, because they both at that moment remembered that their daughter was a high school senior. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and they were reasonably sure she had not yet had sex, which they hoped would remain the case for a while, so they didn’t meet each other’s eyes to acknowledge the comment. As they busied themselves straightening the bed, straightening their clothing, Elaine let her thoughts flow back to the movie star, who had made for good fantasy while Pete labored above her. He was not a bad lover—after twenty years he knew what she liked—but he wasn’t very versatile. She wondered if he could tell that she had been imagining herself in a movie with a man not quite young enough to be her son.
The idea had not escaped Pete. The next morning, watching his daughter tie a cotton wrap around her slim girl hips, he wondered if the movie star could be exerting the same influence on his wife that he seemed to have over his daughter.
Leigh Ann was back after only a few minutes, her face red and her eyes watering. “What?” Elaine said, starting toward her, but Leigh Ann held a hand up to ward her off.
“He’s gone,” she said, and Elaine heard the suppressed wail in those two words and felt it in her own heart.
Early that afternoon, Frank led the way down the baked wood of the dock and then onto a sandy path toward a cinderblock box with a low roof and a metal door. To the right of the door, leaning against an empty wooden crate, was a hand-lettered sign which said Maters Fer Sale. Corrine wondered if the blatant misspelling was intended or not. She was near the back of the file, with only Walt behind her. He had a habit of never letting her be at the rear of a group, or the last to pass through any door—this wasn’t just the gentlemanly norms of men his age; it was some remnant of his wartime experience which he would never discuss nor negotiate.
Once inside, the group moved slowly, their eyes adjusting to the dim light compared to the unrelenting brightness outside. Frank dragged an extra chair to a round table, wood legs scraping against the sandy floor. They arranged themselves around the table—Stella and Corinne next to each other, the men grouped on the other side—and finally a waitress appeared and they ordered beer. As soon as she was back with a pitcher and plastic cups, Frank and Walt ordered the food—a bucket of steamed crabs, another one of steamed oysters, scallops, hushpuppies and coleslaw. Bram leaned back in his chair, nodding in approval, surveying the place.
“You sure you got enough here?” the waitress said, smiling. She was probably no older than forty, but the sun had leathered her skin. She seemed woven from the wind and the tough dune grasses. She didn’t seem to recognize Bram Carr, and Corinne was happy to see that he didn’t seem to care. Maybe he preferred that, after living almost his whole life in the public eye.
Walt told the waitress they’d all worked up an appetite, just getting there.
“You know we serve family style here, don’t you?” the waitress said. “Big portions. You don’t want to ruin your figure now, do you?”
Walt grinned. He was enjoying the banter. Oddly enough, this was when Corinne found him most attractive—when another woman was paying him some attention, however innocently.
“Why don’t you sit down and bitch at me, make me feel at home,” he said to her, and there was a moment where everyone took in what he’d just said, and then the men laughed while Corinne and Stella looked at their laps and shook their heads. The waitress slapped Walt on the shoulder in mock offense, but she was laughing too as she walked away. They were playing their roles perfectly, Corinne thought, the blustering men, the rueful, smiling wives.
“Oh that’s great,” Bram said. “I’ve got to write that down.”
“Will it get into one of your movies?” Stella asked, and Bram said you never knew when a good line would come in handy. Walt asked if they could get tickets to the premiere, and Bram laughed and shrugged, as if this whole idea had surprised him.
Stella giggled. She was already on her second beer, while Frank had barely touched his. Corinne herself wanted to put her forehead on the table, but not because of her husband’s quip—a line he’d picked up from his Navy days. (It had enraged her the first time she’d heard him say it, even though she knew he didn’t see her as a nag. Now it only faintly embarrassed her for its unoriginality—something Fred Flintstone might’ve said if his cartoon self had been allowed an off-color moment.) No, her distress came because she knew one thing for a fact. That worn-out line of her husband’s would end up in a movie—Corinne knew it just as sure as she’d known the significance of that moment in the train station when she was barely twenty-one years old, Frank and Walt’s young faces tilted up to hers. Bram Carr was working on a movie, and they were part of his research. Instead of excitement she felt dread.
Tim saw the boat come in—the hull glinting in pier lights. He couldn’t sleep, which seemed to happen to him more and more often. Times like these, he wished he hadn’t nearly killed himself drinking, because he missed going to bars, even during the season with all the tourists sucking down their Island Iced-Teas. When he quit drinking he’d had to quit bars, too, which in a way was worse. He’d lost his old haunts. Even when he got to the point where he could go places alcohol was served, he always made sure he could order food. A man his age going to a bar and ordering only a soft drink might as well be wearing man sandals, too.
Usually he didn’t know the reason for any particular night’s insomnia. But that night he figured it out as he watched the boat’s approach. It was the actor. He was like some big wild cat dropped into the place. He made you aware of your own mortality, towering twenty times his size on screens around the country. He made you think about the thin thread between this moment and the one when you are gone. You could see yourself passing through time, one door closing after the next, a long hallway of doors.
The girl—poor kid—the only teenager in the Sea Cutter this week, was out there lurking by the pool. Tim hadn’t noticed her until she moved forward from a shadowed spot in front of one of the empty rooms. She’d been watching the boat, too. Tim could see the blue TV glow through the curtains of her parents’ window in Number 3. He wanted to see what would unfold. The girl was wearing a dress, had a book in her hand and a flashlight under her arm. Tim stood up for a better view through his window. Then she did something that stopped him. She turned her back to the dunes so that she was facing the office, above which Tim stood, frozen now, wondering if somehow she’d heard his couch creak. But she didn’t look his way; instead she cupped her forehead in her free hand, raised her shoulders and pressed them down. She was steeling herself.
She turned back to the dunes, and a second or two later, the movie star appeared on the bridge, every bit an actor making his entrance. The actor stopped when he saw her. He was probably used to people popping out from the shadows everywhere he went. The girl reached for him, and he tilted his head toward her, and Tim wondered if he ought to phone her parents’ room. But then he decided he had to leave. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want to watch. One of those doggy old men, he thought, feeling around for his keys in the dark, stuffing his feet into loafers so worn they were a second skin. He made his way down the wooden steps on the street side, crossed the gravel lot to his car. It was nine o’clock on a Thursday night, and the kitchen might still be serving down at the Silver Crescent. He hadn’t gone there for any reason for as long as Marcy had worked there, and he didn’t know if she was even still working there. Chances were she was taking all the shifts she could get before winter set in.
He would’ve walked if it weren’t for the kitchen getting close to closing. He rolled the car windows down, propped his elbow on the door. Salt air streamed over his arm. He thought, My life is certainly half over, if not more so. It was a simple truth. He decided he would order a burger and a decaf coffee. As a child he couldn’t figure how the old men at the docks could drink coffee, black, even in the dead heat. He’d guessed it was one of those skills that only came with time, like snoring loudly, or taking out your teeth. Now he couldn’t think of anything better than black coffee, the last of the day, burned, oily on top, the stuff that would get thrown out if he didn’t show up to order it.
He would tell Marcy not to make another pot. He would tell her he was sorry. Sorry for that girl who got trapped here as sure as he did, even if on purpose at the time. Sorry as she’d probably felt for him all those years ago. He would tell her that he’d been thinking about love, how it comes to you in different ways over the course of a life. When you’re young you want a woman for all that you don’t know about her: where she is when she isn’t with you, what she feels like. And there’s a lot you don’t want to know. As you get older, you can appreciate a sense of history in a person. Less needs to be said or argued over. It either is or it isn’t, and you’re relaxed—or worn out—enough to know.
“I waited for you,” Leigh Ann whispered when Bram got close enough. Fortunately the old people he’d come back with had veered off to the other side of the pool, and Bram had left them at the bottom of the boardwalk steps. He’d stopped at the sound of her voice, startled. She had startled him. The thought that she’d had some physical effect on him, however slight, thrilled her. Her heart felt lodged in her throat, like something wild fighting its way out, and she concentrated on keeping her balance.
He shook his head, smiled. Recognizing her. She said, “I kept your secret.”
His voice seemed to be something that existed outside of him, surrounding her. “Let’s take a walk on the beach. Tomorrow morning, sunrise.”